A few months ago, I saw an ad for The Tempest in passing and was immediately intrigued, if only because it looked ridiculously badass. It was an adaptation of the classic Shakespeare play, of which I am an enormous fan. It had Helen Mirren. It appeared to have no budget. It seemed ridiculously cool. After having seen the film, I feel rather let down: while it may be gorgeous to look at, this version of Shakespeare‘s tale is riddled with strange and often distracting creative choices that hinder the appreciation of the narrative.
Right off the bat, I was mildly confused—the movie looked incredibly modern (I had thought that perhaps it was a retelling, a modernized version or what have you) and yet it becomes immediately apparent that the script utilizes the classic Shakespearean dialogue. Even more befuddling is the switching of gender roles, for no longer is the protagonist of the story the Duke of Milan, Prospero, but rather the Duchess of Milan, Prospera (Mirren), although she is still trapped on a deserted island with her daughter, Miranda (Felicity Jones). Even more off-putting, at least for me, though, was the change of Ariel (Ben Whishaw) from a female spirit, as I had always seen her, into a rather effeminate man, who is completely nude throughout the entire movie (although without genitals, which is just weird). It’s the combination of these elements that just immediately imbalances the viewer, especially those who have seen the play before.
One of the main lauding points for the film was that it was the classic Shakespearean story, but now that they had the technology and funding, director Julie Taymor was sparing no expense with the visuals, making Prospera’s spells and Ariel’s transformations truly breathtaking to behold. However, Taymor chose to portray these magical elements in the worst way possible: making them perfectly visible and shown in their entirety. It’s like… in a horror movie, the point is not to show the big bad scary thing, because the less you show of it, the scarier it is, letting the audience’s imagination do all the work.
With elements of mysticism and magic, the tact is very similar; you want to show the audience enough of the spell to be truly impressed by its sheer scope and power, but not enough to see exactly how it’s done. Taymor errs here and even further, making the spells small and often distant, turning a gale-force storm into a quarter of the backdrop. Mirren‘s Prospera also seems oddly detached from the energies she is summoning, barely affected by the elements she summons, which makes it feel really, well, lame. It all looks bloody well fake, too, which certainly doesn’t help things. The most effective magical effects are performed by Ariel, and the coolest part of those is Whishaw‘s makeup and costuming, turning him from a water nymph into a raven-devil-thing to an infernal demon, each more convincing than the last.
There’s something else: the singing. Oh lord, the singing. There are quite a few songs throughout the movie, all of which are sung by various characters, mostly tied into the narrative, but not entirely. Let me tell you, it’s not a good choice. In one particularly painful scene, the shipwrecked Prince Ferdinand (Reeve Carney) is professing his love for Jones‘s Miranda, and decides to do so through song. It is very pretty, to be sure, but it lasts for over two minutes, at which point I wanted to turn the movie off. It’s not that it’s an inherently bad choice, but it just feels like the wrong one. Once again, it takes you by surprise, and not in a good way.
The only respite from these questionable creative decisions is Russell Brand as the stranded and very, very drunk court jester Trinculo. Every time he was on-screen (mostly with Alfred Molina, which is quite fun as well), I breathed a little easier—he even made me laugh out loud at some points. In a story that is just taking itself way too seriously (the intensely committed but way too serious Djimon Hounsou as the usually eccentric Caliban is sadly a perfect example of this), Brand alleviates everything with his staggering, bumbling antics that left me tickled.
All in all, it tries really hard. Maybe a little too hard.
A power grab finds Prospera (Mirren), the rightful Duchess of Milan, exiled to a remote island with her young daughter, Miranda (Jones). Asserting influence over the island, Prospera develops a new enemy: the slave Caliban (Hounsou), who looks to raise a rebellion against his foe.